Six themes that affect the lives and careers of Women of Color in STEM
By Mallory Molina
Over the course of the summer, we have met women of color in science, technology, engineering and math (WOC in STEM) fields at various stages in their careers. We have talked about the struggle of burnout, the strength from support systems, and the triumphs of overcoming obstacles.
I originally felt isolated in my experiences, but I have learned this summer that I am not alone. While I might experience burnout or struggles with my identity in my own way, I know that others have dealt with those types of situations as well. As my article series draws to a close, I want to spend some time reflecting on what we can take away from the stories I collected over the summer.
Can we learn about ourselves through the experiences of others? Can we define common problems definitively, and talk about how they relate to all of us, both individually and as a community? While I cannot speak for everyone personally, I can connect lessons that I have learned in talking with the amazing women I have interviewed.
I found six concepts that were common among almost, if not all, the women I interviewed: family, support systems, mentoring, burnout, identity and resilience. I want to step through each of these concepts individually, and discuss what we can learn from the stories we have heard over the summer. Let’s dive in!
One of the most common themes that was present in nearly every interview I conducted over the summer was family and community. From struggling to follow your dreams while meeting your family’s wishes like Dr. Padilla, or family needs changing career plans like Dr. Maribel Campos-Rivera, your relationship with your family can have a large impact on your life.
Based on those discussions, I think that no matter what relationship you have with your family, you should not let it restrict or define your career. There is a way to do what you want to do with your life, even if the road isn’t perfect or straight-forward. For example, Dr. Padilla stayed near her family so that she could continue doing the work she loved, and Dr. Campos-Rivera took a dual position to provide for her son’s special needs.
While I never personally dealt with those situations, I have dealt with negative experiences with my family, particularly in the relationship with my mother. I had to learn to not let her affect my personal confidence or state of mind, which included not talking to her for the past year. I still sometimes find it distracting from my work, but in the end, I know that other members of my family support me and my decisions and that helps keep me motivated.
Issues relating to your family, both positive and negative, will always be there and can easily affect your work. Whatever the situation, knowing that your family life does not define your work is important to your success. You alone have control over who you are and what you need. Your family can be a voice of support, reason or a source of strength, but they do not have the power to keep you from your dreams. Find a way to succeed with whatever path you choose.
Whether or not your family is a part of your support system, having one is vital to succeeding in STEM. I struggled building my own at first, just like many who are just starting in their fields. Finding your support system is one of the hardest, but most rewarding, things you accomplish in your career. Your support system can help you through burnout like Dr. Stephani Page’s did, or help you find work positions that meet your needs like Dr. Campos-Rivera.
I isolated myself at the beginning of my graduate career because I thought no one understood me well enough to be in my support system. I thought I could handle it all on my own, but that strategy didn’t work. I ended up being constantly exhausted, and contemplated quitting the field. I caught on eventually, and started working on a true support system: people I knew were in my corner and wanted me to succeed. While this did require me to share and be more open with myself and my experiences than I’m used to, the support I feel more than makes up for that moment of discomfort.
Finding and keeping people in your support system when you are used to handling things by yourself can be scary. I understand that feeling completely, but the support you receive in return makes that necessary.
One of the easiest ways to start is by finding a facebook group or a site, like #VanguardSTEM, where people will listen and be supportive of you. Even if the relationship is only online at first, that online community can help you find people closer to home.
The feeling of confidence you get when you know people believe in you and support you is amazing, and definitely worth the work!
One of the most important people who needs to be in your corner is your mentor. This mentor can be your advisor in your undergraduate or graduate career, or just someone in the field that helps navigate you after school. They can help you figure out the path you need to take, like Melanie McReynolds, they are supportive when others aren’t like Andrea Bonilla, and they can even help you get over burnout, like Dr. Page.
One of the hardest issues that women of color and their advisors deal with is not understanding each other’s perspective. Many times, your advisor is not going to be a woman of color, and so they will not have first-hand experience with the issues you face. I somewhat experienced this with my own advisor, until I built up the courage to talk to him about those issues. The meeting turned out to be a great experience and only strengthened his mentorship because he understood me better. Unfortunately, I know that my experiences are probably not the norm.
While your advisor may not understand your perspective and needs immediately, the most important part of their role is that they support you.
If you are afraid to talk to them about those issues, find someone else you feel comfortable with. You don’t only get mentoring from your advisor! I have a post-doctoral student in my group who has mentored me and helped grow my own personal confidence and scientific knowledge. Don’t limit yourself by only letting yourself have one mentor. The more people who are in your corner, the better.
However, when you choose your main academic advisor, make sure that they understand your work style and how much you know. Setting realistic goals for you is challenging if your advisor doesn’t know where you are in the learning process. Don’t be afraid to switch mentors or advisors if you think that it isn’t a good match. It is okay to be selfish in this situation, because ultimately it is your career.
Following our last episode “Burnout, Bravery, and Being a Woman of Color in STEM” (#BBBinSTEM), we have brought burnout, and how to handle it, into the spotlight at #VanguardSTEM. So many of us have experienced burnout, that we should be talking about it more between ourselves and the community at large.
I was inspired by the episode and reached out to the #VanguardSTEM community at large to find #BBBinSTEM stories to share. Not surprisingly, there were many stories of burnout and mental and emotional exhaustion. From Amber Lenon’s exhaustion as an undergraduate, to Dr. Page’s burnout right before her dissertation defense, we have seen, heard and experienced burnout in many ways.
Based on our discussion on Facebook and Twitter recently, we have only scratched the surface of the stories and experiences with burnout. I won’t spend time talking about how to deal with burnout, because we have many articles about that on the #VanguardSTEM website.
Instead, I want to remind you that these feelings are becoming the norm. The more we talk about this, the less we will isolate ourselves in burnout, and we can hopefully start to break that cycle.
Another important part of succeeding in STEM is embracing your own identity. Dr. Mónica Feliú-Mójer recently discussed how she is always true to herself and her identity, especially in STEM. Who we are can impact how we learn, but it does not make us any less worthy of our career.
You should find mentors who respect your personal identity, even if they don’t fully understand your perspective. Most importantly, never feel ashamed or embarrassed by who you are.
I slipped into that hole very quickly in high school and college, and have been slowly working my way towards accepting who I am. There is nothing wrong with your truth, and don’t let anyone put you down for it. If they don’t respect you for who you are, they aren’t worth keeping around.
That all being said, it can be scary to share your identity with people when you aren’t sure of their reactions. I understand that, and went through experiences both where it worked out well and failed miserably. One of the best strategies I heard was from Dr. Padilla and Melanie McReynolds, who talk about meeting with groups related to your identity. They will share some common experiences with you, and can help you build confidence and reassurance in yourself. Remember that no one has the right to judge your identity. You are worthwhile, and your stories and perspectives are valid.
Finally, while this was never mentioned explicitly by anyone I interviewed, all of them have been resilient in their careers. I recently said in our Twitter conversation, “Resilience is learning to accept when things aren’t okay and letting yourself handle it in your own way.” Each woman I interviewed over the course of the summer has had setbacks. Instead of breaking down or working too hard to compensate, they appreciate the obstacle for what it is, and then find a way to move on. Learning to accept failures or setbacks and move on is vital to being successful in anything, both personally and professionally.
No one is perfect. No one should be.
These words are hard to read for me, but what I have learned by talking to these women over the summer—women I respect and consider successful—is that being perfect isn’t what we should shoot for. Dr. Campos-Rivera said something in her interview that deeply resonated with me:
“The difference between those who survive and those who don’t isn’t merely skill—the difference is what happens when failure comes around. Those who survive take failure as a lesson learned and move on.”
To find that lesson, we need to let setbacks and hard moments be difficult. We need to accept that this is not okay, and to learn to keep it from happening again. If we want to be perfect, our life will just become painful, as any minor setback seems like the end of the world. I am still working through that process myself. In an effort to move towards the goal of accepting imperfection, I have shed many tears and sat on the couch at home letting myself feel the weight of my emotions.
Eventually, I pick myself up and figure out what can I learn from this situation. Is this something that I need to change, or is this setback actually something that might be okay? I remind myself of all the hard work and sacrifices I have made to get where I am, and why I am doing this in the first place. I love my work. I love studying space, understanding the universe around us, and I don’t want to do anything else. I have found my passion in life, and I need to persevere and continue on doing what I need to do to get where I want to go.
That is resilience: feeling those emotions, accepting them, and learning from them.
In closing, I want to thank every woman who shared her story with me. I appreciate you letting me see your struggles, and share in your triumphs. Everyone I interviewed is an amazing woman and someone I consider a role model, but at the same time they are all just women doing their jobs. Their stories may sound unique and amazing, but in all honesty each of us has a great story to tell. We are all strong women, we are all doing what we want to do with our lives, and we have all overcome obstacles. We should all respect ourselves and love ourselves for what we have accomplished and what we will accomplish.
Thank you for going on this journey with me this summer. I can’t wait to see, hear and read about all the amazing things you all can accomplish in the years to come.
Copyright © 2016 by Jedidah Isler
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